Photo by Don Kellogg

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Road to Mecca

An old fashioned play and a top-notch actress take center stage at the American Airlines Theatre at the Roundabout Theatre Company this winter.  Athol Fugard's The Road To Mecca is a charming, albeit very wordy, drama revolving around an eccentric, elderly Afrikaner woman living in the countryside of South Africa - battling age, loneliness, depression, and the threat of losing her identity by being forced into selling her home and moving into the local senior home.

Rosemary Harris shines in her portrayal of Miss Helen, flawlessly memorizing her extensive and complex monologues - expertly portraying the elderly woman.  Mr. Fugard wraps Ms. Helen with layers of complexity which are revealed one by one by the supremely talented Harris.  Carla Gugino plays an equally refreshing, young English South African muse and confidant to Miss Helen, Elsa Barlow.  Jim Dale turns in a wonderful performance as the equally aging and staunch Afrikaner minister and de facto leader of the remote, traditional, conservative community largely unchanged over time by the outside world. 

Brevity is clearly not a characteristic of Mr. Fugard.  His verbosity is at times a bit overwhelming, but it's always intelligent, insightful, and relevant to the deep and layered characters he has created.  And what a treat it is to see Ms. Harris light the theatre with her charm (and candles).  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Close Up Space

Molly Smith Metzler is an award winning playwright from Brooklyn and she's written a charmer that is now being presented at Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) on the small stage at NY City Center.

The play, Close Up Space, revolves around Paul (David Hyde Pierce), an intelligent literary editor and his estranged and odd daughter, Harper (Colby Minifie).  The title cleverly refers to an editing/proof-reading symbol - as in "shorten this up and remove some words (the verb to close, pronounced with a 'z').  You learn fairly early that something is amiss with his family and his daughter is quite upset with his actions.  Throw in a Saturday Night Live-like office manager, Steve (Michael Chernus), a well-published spit-fire (albeit mis-cast) author, Vanessa Finn Adams (Rosie Perez), and an innocent and smartly cast office intern, Bailey (Jessica DiGiovanni) and you have the makings of a sweet treat.

However in making that sweet treat, if you use the wrong ingredients or switch the salt for sugar you're in for a disaster.  Such is the case under the reign of Barry Grove at MTC.  Ms. Perez, while entertaining, is an over-used, mis-cast character actress in the role.  Mr. Chernus, while very funny and his character's arc cleverly designed, was overly so - to a point beyond satire to that of absurdity and farce.  Ms. Minifie's defects were perhaps one of the few that can be associated with the author  - taking the "I've been exiled to Siberia" analogy way too far.   David Hyde Pierce worked his magical reactions, facial expressions, and character acting the entire time and essentially rescued this one from falling into the abyss.

Mr. Grove - your audience is somewhere between 40 and death... much closer to the latter, i estimate (maybe because your subscriptions are relatively cheap) and your play selection, while admirable, just haven't seem to cut it in the past few cycles.  David Hyde Pierce may just have prevented this one from becoming the next one to fall off the cliff, but you've got to to a little better or once the purple haired audience ends up in those coffins, you're going to have a lot of empty seats in those wonderful theaters you manage.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Everything about Burning, Thomas Bradshaw's new play, is less like a flaming tinderbox and much more like the wet smoldering ashes of a rained out campfire.  The painful 3 hours in the theater included just about every issue and topic that might be featured individually in a well written avant-garde show downtown - all thrown in with reckless abandon aimed at provocation with the result being disgust.   Decide for yourself.

This play includes 3 audacious and intertwined stories.  A gay 15 year-old in California who's mother, the crackhead, overdoses and dies after which he runs away to NYC to be an actor and ends up living with an older gay couple as their houseboy and sex-toy.  He sleeps with a friend of theirs who has AIDS, runs away to Cologne, Germany for 3 years and watches his new boyfriend die.  In another story we get two grown children of Nazi parents who have died - the daughter inexplicably confined to a wheelchair.  They carry on the Aryan Nation tradition and beliefs of their parents.  The skinhead brother has to care for his sister and ultimately has to resort to pleasure her sexually in the bathtub with his fingers.  In the third story we have a mixed race couple.  The black man is an artist who paints provocative works about race and doesn't let anyone know he is black before they meet him.  He travels to Germany to the gallery where the Nazi guy works.  The Nazi guy doesn't know he's black, learns the truth upon meeting him and ultimately ends up murdering him in a dark movie theater when the black guy is with a prostitute with whom he has fallen in love - she's black and he's never been with a black woman because when he was 5 his older sister would use him as a decoy when having sex with her many boyfriends - and of course he saw her and ever since was repulsed by black women.  Then there's a time warp effect where the young guy in the first story i mentioned grows up and meets the cousin of the black guy and here we have homophobia, coming out, unprotected sex on purpose with an HIV positive gay man.

I could go on... and on.... and on.... but I just might get sick to my stomach all over again.  There were some beautiful and talented people on stage - both fully clothed - as well as fully unclothed - and I honestly question if some of the many sex scenes were really simulated... Don't get me wrong - I'm not a prude - quite the opposite actually.  But the intentional over-saturation with issues, naked bodies, orgasms, hairy ass cracks and other sordid details was completely forced and not natural at all.

Some fine acting by the cast which includes Hunter Foster cannot be overlooked or go unmentioned but was completely overpowered by the playwright's hubris and over-blown, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink approach to forcing an avant-garde feeling on us - - failing miserably every step of the way.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Suicide, Incorporated

 Andrew Hinderaker, a fresh, young playwright is having his moment in the spotlight.  Specifically, the spotlight several times a week in the Roundabout Theater Company's New Play Initiative.  Mr. Hinderaker's jolting and emotionally charged new work, Suicide, Incorporated, is being produced in the Black Box Theater of the Roundabout Underground.   This play marks the Roundabout's 6th new play in the space and, without a doubt, this one is as powerful if not more-so than the previous - and the bar was already set fairly high.

Part dark-comedy, part hurts-your-heart-to-the-bone drama - this Mr. Hinderaker handles the subject matter with aplomb.  As I have come to expect at the RU, this black-box is way more than your average run-down black-box.  Professional quality sets, lighting, and sound are a benefit this black-box gets by being associated with such a great theater company upstairs.  Not disappointing this time around either, Daniel Zimmerman (Set Design), Zach Blane (Lighting Design) and Chad Raines (Sound/Music) bring their 'A'-game to the show.

Director Jonathan Berry might consider trimming up a few scenes here and there where the concepts are needlessly repeated, but these are nit-picky finer points not the fundamentals I'm talking about here. His otherwise keen direction was clearly reflected through the actors, all of whom turned in top-notch performances - Gabriel Ebert (Jason), Toby Leonard Moore (Scott), Corey Hawkins (Perry), Jake O'Connor (Tommy),  James McMenamin (Norm), and Mike DiSalvo (Officer).

Without spoiling anything here, the play concerns a certain suicide note writing company and the people who work there.  One recent hire, Jason, seems to be set to help his clients in the opposite way of his boss, Scott's,  wishes.  His motivations regarding his behavior toward his new client (Norm), may have something to do with his brother, Tommy.

Immerse yourself in this 85 minute intermission-less, emotionally charged drama to find out exactly what the buzz is all about.  For only $20, the theatre-for-your-dollar ratio is about as high as it can get.  As with all the previous RU productions, the subtitle of this play aptly sums things up - "Never a customer complaint".

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Balls: The Musical?

It began with $6,000 from a Kickstarter campaign this past summer, raised to bring this new musical parody to the stage at the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF).  Sold-out and extended at NYMF, this show is back by popular demand and now making a new run, this time off-Broadway at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row.

A few disclaimers are necessary up front 1) I'm not related to the director (Kasey Marino) although we're both kinda cute 2) my ticket was comp'd and 3) despite both of these facts, I won a free bottle of Vodka at the show - yes you read that correctly - a 1 litre bottle of - get this - Balls Vodka!  The vodka tie-in is sorta interesting given the name.  I've yet to open the bottle, but i assume that's what's actually inside.

The show, unabashedly and quite appropriately, advertises itself as A Bro-Tastic musical parody about Besties with Testes.  Created by a very clever and talented young group of men including Bret Carr, (adorable) Mick Bonde, Brandon Ellis, Michael "Tuba"  McKinsey, and Nick Verina, the parody, generally quick-paced although at time a bit clunky, manages to move through the story of 5 young straight-men who have decided to peruse a career in an unlikely field - musical theatre - with wild and reckless testosterone-filled abandon.

Musical Director, Arranger and Pianist, Sonny Paladino does a terrific job at tinkling the ivories with classic hits from Chicago, Mame, Company, Guys and Dolls, La Cage aux Folles, and others turning them into hysterical, over-the-top titalating tunes and bawdy boy-ballads filled with manhood swelling lyrics.   The show's parody genre immediately brought to mind another fan-favorite, Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway.  This show, however, has an actual story and that certainly sets it apart and makes it more than a scene stealing parody show.

I haven't tried the Vodka yet (it's only 10:30am and I'm out of tomato juice), but i must admit it's a catchy tie-in for this show.  For the record, all you have to do to win one is buy a ticket and tweet something funny about the show just before the curtain goes up and one of the boys will bring their iPad up to the stage, check the @ballsthemusical account and pick a winner.

Now, if only those cute boys weren't so straight...   Maybe after a few shots of this magical vodka, that too, will change.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Lysistrata Jones

What's that sound?  I think it's Walter Kerr turning over in his grave.  I've been disappointed on Broadway before and I'm sure I will again.

Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn have crafted a mediocre yet clever book and score that seems vaguely Xanadu-like yet wildly inferior to it's predecessor.  The show is not lacking talented performers, but the young and talented performers are lacking a Broadway-quality product to perform in.   I'd gladly pay $20 or $30 to see this show off-Broadway where it belongs, but when a gaggle of greedy producers gets together and thinks that this crap can sell and be profitable on Broadway at $120 a ticket I wonder what on earth they were smoking!

No stars above the title, not even Lysistrata herself. None of the rest really deserving of the privilege either - not that there weren't incredibly sexy kids on stage - but it takes more than a hot, sexy jock (Josh Segarra) and his occasionally shirtless basketball teammates and a dumb-acting high school girl (Patti Murin) and her geek sidekick (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) to ignite a Broadway barn-burner.  Jason Tam, adorable and cute, gets my award for the character most likely to be seen on the next episode of Glee.   Sets were colorful (read, bright collegiate orange and blue) but how creative can you really get with the inside of a school gymnasium?)  Lighting was colorful and bright but seemed to serve as a mask, not an enhancement to the empty performances.  Occasionally when i looked up at the band (up above the performers on a catwalk - kinda cool - they seemed to be having a lot of fun with the airhead pop-laced tunes.  I wished I was too.

Truth be told I walked out at the intermission.  I can't give this one a legitimate or thorough review.  What I can tell you is not to waste your money in the first place.  The show is off-Broadway quality at best.  And that's not a BAD thing - except when you try to charge $120 a ticket on a Broadway stage.  That's the real sin here.  I hope the producers and creatives behind Bring It On learn a lesson from this one and bring us more than Ms Jones has.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Maple and Vine

Jordan Harrison's fantastic new play, Maple and Vine, being produced at Playwrights Horizons this season is storytelling at its absolute best!  Are you a tired, stressed-out, overworked tranquilized New Yorker?  This play offers you an alternative - a chance to live the "simpler life" by moving to a "community" where everyone lives authentically in 1955. The looks, the ideals, and all that goes with the culture of the era.  You'll have to give up a few things tho.  "Jamaican Jerk, Sushi, Hummus, Foccacia, Baba-Ganoush... Whole Grain Bread... No pine puts, no pesto, no Lattes...  What you will get is... Salt..."

Marin Ireland (Katha) and Peter Kim (Ryu), after much debate, decide to take the plunge for an initial six month trial and move to the gated community of the SDO - The Society of Dynamic Obsolescence after being tantalized by the concept by two current full-fledged members - Trent Dawson (Dean) and Jeanie Serralles (Ellen).  Will this "mixed-race" couple survive?  Will their neighbors welcome them with open arms?  What Ryu, a plastic surgeon, survive his job as a box folder at the local plant?  How will Kath(y), a book publisher, survive in the kitchen?  What deep, dark secrets lurk beneath the surface in this anachronistic community?  You'll just have to see it for yourself to find out.

The play is cleverly divided into it's two natural parts - Act One starts us off in current day in NYC giving us the background on just who Katha and Ryu are and why they're so discontented with their lives.  A chance meeting with Dean (and later Ellen) ultimately intrigues them enough to make the move to the SDO.  Act Two picks up with the same Kath(y) and Ryu living in the SDO working their way through the cultural, religious, and social customs of 1955.  We learn how the time was different - for many people - including Dean and Roger (played by the incredibly sexy Pedro Pascal).  What ultimately unfolds is a tale you'd never suspect - and at the same time - exactly what you would have guessed.

On such a tiny stage, Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design) has done an award winning job at designing the time-accurate yet minimalist sets.  And special shout-out to the hardest working stage crew in the biz - which was completely recognized by the director by having them take a bow along with the cast.  A nice touch and certainly well deserved.

No spoilers here - just know that it's an evening of superb storytelling in the theatre laced with racial, ethnic and political undertones that serve as a reminder that as romantic and glamorous as the time was, perhaps life was not quite so simple as we would like to think.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Fairy Tale

Just because the seats are a little uncomfortable or the location is slightly off the beaten path, don't miss a wonderful opportunity to see the re-imagination of 5 classic fairy tales unfold on stage at The Shelter.

Some of the 5 short plays suggest a reason or a background to the existing tale, others simply take a modern bent to the old story.  Each is delightful.  Each has a message.  And each is as clever as clever can be!  At less than $20 a ticket, the entertainment value per dollar spent is off the charts.  Here is a synopsis is the plays and the original tale upon which it is based:

Dinner for the Queen by Meghan E. Jones - Inspired by Snow White by the Brothers Grimm
R.I.P. Captain Wendel - by Andy Hassell - Inspired by Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving
3 Sisters and a Carnie - by Beth Jastoch - Inspired by Three Billy Goats Gruff - old Norwegian tale
Kate - by Michael Bernstein - Inspired by Donkeyskin by Charles Perrault
Terror on Haxos 9 - by Jonathan Ashley - Inspired by Hansel and Gretel by The Brothers Grimm.

Between each of the plays, the stage crew, dressed all in black and white with a red pig's mask ham it up a bit to almost create a 6th show.  At first, I thought they represented the 3 Little Pigs - but when a 4th showed up, I must admit I was a bit puzzled, but entertained the entire time, nonetheless.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Cherry Orchard

I can't say I'm a huge fan of "the classics".  But occasionally, I do know it's good to see some of them to expand one's horizons.  And there's one theatre, aptly named, in town that I always head to for my fix - Classic Stage Company.   The last play in their Anton Chekhov cycle (and Chekhov's final play) is The Cherry Orchard.

I did a little reading on Chekhov.  I'm pretty sure most of what I didn't like was his play itself.  Perhaps a bit of it was the mood and artistic interpretation that director, Andrei Belgrader, took too.  Were those 4th wall breaches in the script?  Did we need a dog?  Did someone really need to give up his seat for the old chambermaid?  Well, without much proof (and no desire to go read the script from cover to cover for stage directions), i'll just lay it in equal parts on the author and the director.

What I can be sure of is that the work is epic, poetic, and contains all sorts of oddly comedic characters that are supposed to represent the 19th Century Russian society.  The play is a comedy, but borders on farce.  It's really what today we would call a socio-political satire.  In this case, falling importance and wealth of Russian aristocracy, the freeing of and rise of the peasant class, land ownership, wealth distribution, and the blurring of the lines of class and position in society.  While the play itself seemed oddly formal or maybe a bit stilted (perhaps that is my un-cultured ear), that was completely offset by several fine performances throughout.

The dashing and commanding John Turturro and the beautifully effervescent Diane Wiest held court on the pizza-pie shaped, appropriately stained white canvas stage the entire evening.  The absolutely adorable and boyish Michael Urie made us laugh at his travails, and, not one but, two Waterston sisters took to this stage - Elisabeth as a bold attention seeking chambermaid and Katherine as the dutiful daughter.  Daniel Davis wore a cream suit suit to complement his blazing white hair and Roberta Maxwell deadpanned her absurd lines to much delight.  Josh Hamilton made being a lifetime student look easy and Alvin Epstein charmed us with his elderly gentleman humor.

A truly fine ensemble cast all around and a classic and sophisticated set as I have come to expect from CSC time and time again.  After watching it, discussing it afterwards with my play-going-friend, and now writing this, I can say for sure that I'm still not a classics-lover.  But what I can also say is that when a great ensemble cast such as this is gathered - sometimes the works come to life and resonate in ways you didn't expect.   I won't run out and buy the complete anthology of Anton Chekhov any time soon, but I would encourage you to run down to CSC and get a ticket to see this fine production if you're so inclined.